Mortal Kombat has had a chequered history. Launched as something of a controversial counterpoint to more traditional fighters, the series has glorified over-the-top violence. But if trading on spectacle alone ensured that the first three instalments were a success, Mortal Kombat soon lost its way.

Behind the bloodspatters and excessive gore was a basic fighting game that didn’t bear close scrutiny to its increasingly fine-tuned competition. Tie-ins and spin-offs conceived to breathe new life into the license instead diluted the brand.

The newly released Mortal Kombat is designed to shed decades-old baggage, to celebrate the series’ outrageous roots and to design a more nuanced fighter that can command the attention of dedicated gamers that want more than a gimmick. That alone is clear from the title – there are no numerals here, no subtitle.

There are also no new characters introduced to the series, save the bizarre inclusion of God of War’s Kratos in the PlayStation 3 version. The 3D fighting plane has been eschewed in favour of the tighter 2D plane. Players will rediscover upper-cuts that send their opponents airborne and round-house kicks that send their opponents sailing backwards.

Elsewhere, improvements to the combat model have been made. Face buttons are mapped to the right and left limbs. Combatants will discover they can juggle their foes and string together combinations that include special moves. As special moves are performed with a combination of directional taps and buttons, the Xbox 360's notoriously flimsy D-Pad can prove to be an ongoing source of frustration when attempting to execute more complex maneuvers.

A three-tiered power-up bar has also been implemented. At tier one, players can increase the effect of a special move, two tiers can be spent to counter an attack and three can be used to apply “X-ray” special attacks, visceral scripted combinations that see ribs cracked, eyes gouged and limbs hyper-flexed.

As bouts unfold characters degenerate into bloodied rags. Once the match-up comes to a close, players will be able to execute the series’ signature fatalities to rend, crush and eviscerate vanquished foes, adding a further serving of humiliation to the defeated party.

The excessive gore ensures that Mortal Kombat well and truly earns its R18 classification upon first foray. All the same, the carnage is fantastical in the extreme and it’s difficult to believe that anyone could be negatively affected by what Mortal Kombat offers. One wonders if this game’s impossible brutality – carried out against frequently-anthropomorphic characters – is really any more subversive than the larger part of first-person shooters that arm teenagers with guns and present them with very human targets. Suffice to say, the appeal of a violent exhibition wears off after several hours with the game.

What the player is left with is a highly aggressive, frenetic fighter. If it’s not as complex as its competition, if some special moves appear ripe for abuse and if balancing will be an ongoing, iterative process, it’s still every bit as entertaining.

Moreover, it’s supported by one of the most extensive singleplayer offerings yet seen in the genre. The game’s Story Mode begins in media res with Raiden about to be dispatched by Shao Khan. But before his brother can finish him, the thunder god sends a warning of the future to his past self. Thus the stage is set for an alternate reality wherein the player will reconfigure the outcomes of the first three Mortal Kombat games by controlling a variety of prescribed characters. Bouts are dissected by visually lacklustre if quintessentially Mortal Kombat cut-scenes that cannot be skipped. As a result, players will discover they cannot skip around the Story Mode after completion and must instead commit to replaying it in its entirety. It’s a passing frustration but certainly one that could have been avoided.

Altogether more engaging is the singleplayer Challenge Tower, a series of 300 tasks ranging from the basic to the extraordinary. The scale of this mode is such that we’ve been unable to complete it – indeed even to make a serious dent in it – at the time of writing, but highlights include fending off zombie hordes with a pistol to fighting in three-versus-one matches.

Mortal Kombat also offers a variety of online modes from classic one versus one matches to tag-team battles featuring local cooperative play. Players can enter into Ranked, Player and Private matches, and can also sign up for King of the Hill mode, a small-scale tournament for eight players. Those not fighting can watch those who are, bringing with it a whiff of the fighting genre’s arcade glory days.

Finally, Mortal Kombat hosts Rooms, or lobbies that can hold up to one hundred players. On that evidence, one might assume Mortal Kombat’s online offering would be amongst the finest currently available on the market, but unfortunately the game suffers from difficulties with latency that can make trickier combinations exceedingly difficult to time correctly.

Playing before general release in New Zealand, we were necessarily paired against players in the US. While the situation could improve somewhat when the game goes on sale here, Mortal Kombat has been refused classification in Australia, meaning there’ll be no larger body of players to be matched against in the south Pacific. Should Mortal Kombat’s online appeal wear thin with general Kiwi audiences in the months ahead, more dedicated players may find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.

Even if gamers may have to wait for something truly definitive, Mortal Kombat represents significant, praiseworthy progress for the series. A joyful respite for long-battered fans and a highly entertaining, bloodied distraction for the rest.